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Best. Question. Ever. — The Sermon That Launched 4U

Most people who give the subject any thought (and that’s not “most people” to begin with) assume that St. Paul wrote his New Testament letters by sitting down and composing them on pen and parchment.

But that’s not what happened.  Instead, we know from the closing chapters of several of his epistles that he dictated his letters to a scribe (in technical terms, an amanuensis) who scribbled away as Paul walked and talked.  Yesterday, we brought that historic reality home by have a pair of actors in dress in biblical period piece, one in the role of Paul and the other in the role of Tertius, his scribe for the Roman letter.  And then we imagined what is was like when Paul dictated Romans 8:31-39.  The resulting drama sketch was spectacular, and it paved the way for the sermon you will read below, called “Best. Question. Ever.”

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There’s nothing like a really good question, is there? The right one at the right time, depending on the answer that follows, can literally change the course of your history. You know this. A lot of you lived this. Maybe it even started when you met someone and you felt chemistry:  What’s your sign, baby? Then it progressed: Wanna see a movie? Would you like to eat dinner? You ready to meet my parents? Then, of course, for many of you: Will you marry me?

After that, you get a little one and then questions sort of start to go in reverse. First there’s the ever-present why? Then the one every parents dreads: Where do babies come from? Then: why is there hair coming out of your ears but falling out of your head?

Ultimately, those questions turn pretty philosophical: why does quicksand work so slowly? More: Can God make a rock so big that he can’t move it? Think about that one deeply before you answer it! No! Er . . . Yes! Dang it! And then probably my favorite: Do you really believe that pushing the elevator button multiple times makes it go faster? Questions propel us!
Yet here in Romans 8, this glorious section of Scripture where we will sit and meditate for the next three weeks, there is buried one question that I think surpasses all others. Now: before we get there, you need to know that in Romans, Paul’s entire argument, his whole rhetorical logic is built on a series of questions. Like I heard someone say once, these questions are the hooks on which the whole book hangs. Paul is almost like a skilled lawyer in a courtroom, as lawyers CAN’T testify or speechify & so they have to prove their points with skillfully placed and phrased questions. Like isn’t it true? is kind of the standard sentence in legalese. And that’s how Paul arranges his argument his ultimate aim around questions like 3:1:

3:1 What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision?

6:1 What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?

6:15  What then? Shall we sin because we are not under the law but under grace?

7:7  What shall we say, then? Is the law sinful? 

8:31a What, then, shall we say in response to these things?

Now: when he asks what shall we say in response to these things? we are right to ask in response, what are ‘these things’? And the answer to that, from context of course, are all the truths he has been rehearsing, rehashing, and reheating from Romans 5-8. Writing to a church that was constantly beleaguered and continually under threat – you remember what they did to Xns in Rome, don’t you? Why they built the Coliseum (AV), right? And writing as a man whose own freedom is under assault and whose life is threatened. So as an oppressed man to oppressed ppl: Jesus died to give us what we could never earn – the peace of God in this life and presence with God in the next; Jesus succeeded where Adam failed and that through him our eternity is not only possible but assured; and Jesus resurrection is the downpayment on our own resurrection, to the point that having your eternal destination settled makes your current situation bearable.  “These things” are then summarized in Romans 8:18:

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.

Those are “these things.” So the assurance of forever makes the trauma of now not only bearable but beatable. And all that is to set up what for my money is the BEST. QUESTION. EVER in 8:31b. Ready? OK.

If God is for us, who can be against us?
That’s it. The greatest question ever and I wish you had my job for the several days I got to spend thinking about these words and soaking up their implications. Now I’ve been reading Romans for years and I’ve known this verse forever and yet in this season of my life it hit me with the force of a freight train. A benevolent freight train.

If God is for us, who can be against us?

Now: I do have to let you know something it’s NOT saying in this question. It’s not like my old prayers in high school tennis, “Lord, help me win this match.” No, that makes God a master of the trivial and it’s inviting him to be for you by being against someone else (though some of my teenage tennis opponents certainly deserved the wrath of God!). And If God is for us, who can be against us? is not even a claim for God to favor you or prosper you. That’s not the heart of Romans 8:31, much less Romans 5-8.
Instead, Romans 8:31b is the GQA because simply asking it makes you realize the absurdity of every possible answer other than NO ONE, NO THING, NO HOW. It’s such a great question because the impossibility of answering it well is embedded in it! It summarizes everything Paul has been teaching for four very dense chapters in Romans – essentially, Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again – and affirms that because all that is true, because God has invaded history and acted decisively on behalf of his people, he is for us. Which means he is for you. And you. And you. And you. He is not against you. He is not agnostic about you like you might be about him. He is not ambivalent about you. He is not ignoring you. He is for you. It is a for you that was forged in history and is now being lived out from here to eternity.
You know what it makes me think of? This: (boxing corner man) God is in your corner. Life may be pummeling you with sickness or strife or scandal or sadness but God is in your corner. And you go sit down, bruised and battered, and he is the one intervening, rescuing, healing. Sometimes you’re so bruised and battered you don’t know what is happening, but he is for you through it all.
Or it’s like this:

 

Yes, you’ve got a father sitting above who when you can’t do and don’t expect it he leaves his throne to be your servant. He did it at the cross and according to 8:34, he does it continually in the throne of heaven.
Can I confess something? (And usually, when a preacher stands up and says “I confess” people think, “Oh, Lord who is she and how long has it been going on?”) My talks here are usually about challenge. Persuade, motivate, NAG you to change this, abandon that, start doing this. But in getting these talks ready, I was just so liberated: none of that! People come to church so often beaten up like Paul was and threatened like the Romans were and what a great word the bible has for them: God is for you. You’re not abandoned, ignored, hated. He is for you and because of that you can laugh at your opponents and enemies, not be fearful of them. Because all this means you have the grave-defying power at the center of the universe working on your behalf. These are not words on a page. This is a spirit on the loose.  If God is for us, who can be against us?
Listen, Good Shepherd: I’m not talking in the abstract here. This is deeply, daily, practical. If Romans 8:31b is the GQA, you know what the dumbest question ever is? WWJD? I don’t care what we would do; I am much more interested in what he IS doing as the grave-defying force at the center of the universe graciously acting on my behalf. That I care about. He’s choosing sides and he has chosen yours. He is head-over-heels, inconsolably for you. Working for you, pleading with you, communicating with you. Because your then is settled, he wants to protect, bless, and persevere your now. None of those forces with want to separate you, minimize you, steal faith or beauty from you have a prayer against that force for you. If God is for us, who can be against us?
Get this: he is so for you that he is sometimes against you. Yep. He is rarely more for you than when he is frustrating / thwarting your attempts to betray him. A lot of times you don’t see this until much, much later. Like this rejection letter: AV RSO rejects U2. Well guess what? RSO records ain’t around anymore & U2 has done pretty well for themselves. Or it’s like when a baby gets an immunization shot. Do he like it? Noooo. Is it good for her? When she never gets polio, yes. Look at how Romans 8:34 phrases it, as if to answer the GQA of 8:31: READ.

Know what that means? He’s the one who got you arrested to stop your drinking. He’s the one who made sure you didn’t get that job that would have destroyed your family. He’s the one who got you kicked out of school so you would get into a treatment center. He’s the one who sent those family members to set you straight and let you know you are the common denominator in conflicted relationships. He was the one who arranged it for me to go to college in NJ – like in prayer, I heard “NJ!” – and even though I didn’t want to go & didn’t even like it all that much there, it set up everything good that has happened in life. He’s so for you that he will confront you and confound you all so that he might ultimately conquer. It may hurt like hell but it sends to heaven. If God is for us, who can be against us?
Because look look look at 8:35:  Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?  You know what is so great about that? This love is not sentimental. It’s historic. It’s not an emotion. It’s an event. His love for you is not a warm feeling about you. Anyone can do that. It is instead his recognition that you, me, and everyone else who has ever lived is in need of an enormous rescue plan. And what Noah & Abe & Moses & David couldn’t do, what they could only prepare for, Jesus complete. Not in his heart. With his corpse. It took Jesus’ decisive, historical, brutal action on your behalf to rescue you from eternity. You’re such a mess that someone had to pay to clean it up; you’re so loved that Jesus volunteered for the job. The only “warm” thing about Jesus love for you is not the emotion in his heart; it’s the blood flowing from his hands and feet. He did that. And then because he is biased for you, he continues to operate on you. He’s not made at you or disgusted with you but passionate about you. REFRAIN

So: what? Here’s what I long for. Are you trapped in a loveless marriage? Ask If God is for us, who can be against us?
NO ONE. NO THING. NO HOW.

Are you concerned about the diagnosis the doctor has given you? Ask If God is for us, who can be against us?
NO ONE. NO THING. NO HOW.

Are you feeling attacked because people are cutting you down behind your back at work? Ask If God is for us, who can be against us?
NO ONE. NO THING. NO HOW.

Are you despairing because you have a lot more relapse than you do recovery? Ask If God is for us, who can be against us?
NO ONE. NO THING. NO HOW.
Are you frustrated that things aren’t working out, that blessings seem to be so elusive. Know this: your disappointment could be the best thing that ever happened to you. Ask If God is for us, who can be against us?
NO ONE. NO THING. NO HOW.

 

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